Words by David C. Obenour
Cloaked heavily enough in mysticism, the surrealist of realities can feel oddly present. Taking place in the drowning city, or within a story of the drowning city, The Shipwreck Arcana finds players working together to escape the dark, lapping, ever-deepening fate that besets them.
In The Shipwreck Arcana players are cast fates that they need to confront together in the face of an ever-approaching murky doom. Fates are represented through hidden numbered tiles, who’s value is then deduced with the help of a deck of Arcana cards that provide numerical range rules.
Games play out through mind bending puzzles of memory and reasoned assumptions. Will you be able to work together to beat back the tide?
Off Shelf: The Shipwreck Arcana was designed by you both, twin brothers and founders of Meromorph. Can you talk a little about how you interacted with games growing up?
Kevin Bishop: I think we played more video games than board games, but it’s hard to make those, so we still ginned up binders of our own Pokémon. Games like StarCraft and WarCraft III — with their map editors — really let us begin exercising unrestrained creativity when it comes to merging game playing with game creation.
Matthew Bishop: When we were young we made a lot of our own simple solo and co-op games, and in college we both got exposed to more modern stuff. I started making custom content for my favorite games almost right away. Eventually I started drawing art for some of those projects.
OS: How do you both get along as far as working on the games? Are there set roles that you each stick to, or is it more of a collaborative effort overall?
MB: Working together isn’t always frictionless, but we both enjoy it too much not to do it. Having multiple perspectives is invaluable. For roles, I mostly do art and business stuff, while Kevin does game design and writing, but we both contribute throughout the entire process. He’s done his fair share of concept art and graphic design; I’ve done plenty of gameplay tuning.
KB: Matthew is the momentum behind everything. His work on fan content for Sentinels of the Multiverse really inspired me to go “Okay, we can do this,” and his willingness to research the less-fun business side of things was crucial. During game creation, we are definitely each other’s own worst critics, and it can get heated — but we also respect each other’s opinions enough to eventually find a compromise that’s mutually stronger.
OS: I’m always interested to ask, what was the inspiration behind Shipwreck Arcana? Was there a particular part of its theme or a mechanic used that you can trace back to its inception?
KB: Years after Matthew introduced me to Hanabi, the beauty of information-exchange coop games finally sunk in for me, and “numerical ranges” was the first natural idea I explored when trying to concoct a similar-but-different system. The theme itself was painfully late in the process; I think we went through about four themes before landing on “drowned tarot” by accident. It arose more from the presentation than the gameplay itself.
OS: The Arcana deck seems very well balanced in the powers of the cards and their allotted hours before fading. Can you talk about the testing that went into finalizing these rules? Were there any more abstract rules that you tried but didn’t fit into the game you’d designed?
KB: In the original prototype, arcana/”rule” cards were kings and queens wishing for things, and your numbered tokens – cards at the time – represented genies granting those wishes. Everyone naturally got 3 wishes, but we discovered that some rules just aren’t fun to have in play for as long, because they create repetitive game states, or they give away too much information. Another factor was simply determining which fates are likely to be played on a card; if a card can legally only accept 1s and 2s, it needs fewer moons than a card that absorbs 7s.
As far as abstract rules, I’m sure we tried some, but they quickly weed themselves out for a few reasons: being unintuitive; being too similar to another card; or, most commonly, just not creating interesting “spreads” of possible fates after you play on them.
OS: Its fascinating to me how games can take something that might otherwise be considered work but with interactive components and art, turn it into something else altogether. Having played both the early prototypes and the finished game, can you compare how you interact differently with the game?
KB: A big difference between prototype and final game is just confidence. It was very similar from an early stage, but we weren’t sure: sure it was fun; sure it was balanced; sure it had the right flow. A relatively small number of tweaks, coupled with two years of playtesting, now mean that I can play virtually the same game but have way fewer worries about whether it’s wrong or right; I just enjoy it.
MB: We both enjoy math and logic, so fine-tuning was about presenting that experience so other people could see the joy in it. I think it also helped that the rules stayed simple so that players can focus on the deduction aspect, rather than learning the rules.
OS: The art for Shipwreck Arcana is beautiful. Can you talk a little about your inspirations here? It reminded me a little of Mike Mignola’s work for Hellboy.
MB: That comparison is a huge compliment for me, as he’s one of my favorite artists. Because the game was supposed to feel like a stylized, fictional tarot deck, I went through a lot of styles as we tried to find something simple and clean. It was a challenge trying to make the art and graphic design come together so that it felt like a tarot card, rather than a game card with art on it. It was very different from things I’d drawn before.
OS: Both the art and the Arcana cards hint at this really interesting world that Shipwreck Arcana takes place in. Can you tell us anything more? The rules only really give us two sentences of story, have you thought much more about it?
KB: By the time we finally settled on a theme, the mechanics were long done, and there was limited ability to have the gameplay itself help in evoking any sense of world or story within the players. We layered on a sort of invisible, wide-spread, cohesive backstory via art suggestions, mostly for our own satisfaction. This helped justify the flavor of the game: you’re not playing as characters within the world of Shipwreck Arcana; you’re playing as characters within a world where the Shipwreck Arcana is a story, like Aesop’s Fables or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. So it needed to feel full of hints at these characters and themes that would feel universal while still belonging to some other, slightly different, world.
MB: That abbreviated presentation of the theme was an intentional choice. Several of our earlier themes went to a lot of effort to thematically justify your actions, but the gameplay is so mathematical that it was never a great match and the disconnect would cause players trouble. Over time we found that the actions were easier to understand by themselves, so the theme became a background element.
OS: Do you think there’s a chance you’d ever return to this “drowned world” for a future game?
MB: We enjoy creating new worlds, so it’s unlikely we’d make a different game set in this existing one. However, we also love subtle crossovers, and the lore of this fictional tarot deck lends well to such. There are cameos from our other projects in Shipwreck Arcana, and I don’t doubt you’ll see Shipwreck Arcana cameos pop up elsewhere.
OS: Are there other Meromorph games in development for the near future?
MB: We’re always working on one or more projects, but we don’t work very fast. Our current focus is a card-based roleplaying game, something designed to be easy for new players and inexperienced GMs to dive into. We’ve been having a lot of fun with it.
KB: We’ve now done two games where the flavor was incidental to the gameplay, so we’re really excited to be in early design on something that is lightweight but fundamentally oriented around the world and story. Dabbling in the hybrid boardgame/RPG space is daunting, but we’re enjoying the ability to create characters, worlds, and stories that aren’t just relegated to background details in the art. Hopefully it works out and we have something to announce next year!